Brazilians' Arrest Focuses Scrutiny on Evangelical Groups

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By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 3, 2007

SAO PAULO, Brazil -- Before a service at Reborn in Christ Church this week, a man hawked gospel CDs outside the front door. In the cavernous nave, volunteers placed envelopes soliciting cash donations on each of about 1,000 chairs, while cameramen working for the church's television network focused on the altar.

Everything was ready, except the church's founders and spiritual leaders.

Estevam Hernandes-Filho and his wife, Sonia -- who oversee more than 1,000 churches in Brazil and several in Florida -- were under house arrest in Miami, accused of carrying more than $56,000 in undeclared cash. Some of the money had been stuffed between the pages of their Bible, according to U.S. customs agents who detained the couple last month at the Miami airport.

The arrests and the accusations back home of systematic embezzlement have resonated loudly in Brazil, where tens of millions of people have joined evangelical Christian churches in recent years to create powerful new cultural and political movements. Some of those movements are now under increasing scrutiny from investigators, who say they are receiving testimony alleging similar scandals among other faith-based empires.

Arthur Pinto de Lemos, a state prosecutor who is heading the case against Reborn in Christ Church, pointed to several stacks of folders cluttering his desk this week.

"There are now a lot of other accusations coming in, all of which have started to surface after this case," he said, slapping a palm atop the files.

Defenders of the churches say the spotlight is little more than thinly disguised persecution -- religious prejudice in a country that until recently was overwhelmingly Catholic.

An attorney for the Hernandeses did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. But the church's Web site posted a video interview with lawyer Luiz Flavio D'Urso, who called the charges "absurd."

"I am absolutely sure that this is a mistake -- not only are the accusations false, but the arrest is also a mistake," he said. "God willing, this will be clarified, and their innocence will be proved."

Although Lemos said Catholic organizations are among the institutions accused of wrongdoing, most of the recent attention within Brazil has focused squarely on "evangelicals" -- a loosely used term here that can include Baptists, Pentecostals and many other Protestant denominations. Those movements have roots that stretch back to Pentecostal missions that arrived via the United States nearly 100 years ago, but their numbers have exploded only in the past two decades.

Between 1980 and 2000, the number of those who identified themselves as evangelicals in national census counts doubled, to more than 26 million people in this country of about 185 million. The growth has changed the religious complexion of Brazil, where about 90 percent of residents identified themselves as Catholics in 1980. If the spread of the evangelical denominations continued at the same rate -- an unlikely possibility, according to analysts -- Catholics would be a minority here within 20 years.

Reborn in Christ Church has been at the forefront of the evangelical surge since the Hernandeses formed the church in 1986. The charismatic couple -- known affectionately as "Apostle Estevam" and "Bishop Sonia" to their congregation -- oversee several radio stations, a gospel television network and a record company. Last year, their church helped lead an annual "March for Jesus" rally in downtown Sao Paulo that attracted a crowd that police estimated at about 3 million -- about twice as many people as it had drawn the year before. The Hernandeses have opened multiple churches in Florida, where they also own a home.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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